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Trump's team belatedly stopped playing the debate expectations game on Biden's behalf

Despite late efforts to recast Joe Biden as a champion debater, the president and his campaign have set the bar exceptionally low for him in the minds of many voters.
Donald Trump speaks at the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Sept. 26, 2016.Mark Peterson / for NBC News

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump and his campaign have spent nearly a year lowering the bar for Democratic nominee Joe Biden's debate performance — and the past few weeks trying to reverse that narrative.

In the days going into the first debate Tuesday — one of Trump's final chances to shift the momentum of the race in his favor — aides and advisers have been publicly and privately trying to set the stage for a debate between a president who has done relatively little to prepare and a skilled debater with decades of experience.

"It's not a question of who do you trust to answer the phone if it rings at 2 in the morning. It's can Joe Biden answer the phone if it rings in 2 in the afternoon?" Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh said in a Fox interview in June. "They don't want Joe Biden out meeting Americans and having Americans see, really, how he carries himself on the campaign trail, because it's not very well."

Last week, Murtaugh had a different assessment of Biden's communication skills. "Biden spent decades skillfully debating in the Senate, won two debates while running for vice president and just came through 11 debates in Democratic primaries where he defeated two dozen challengers," he said. "Joe Biden is a master debater who knows what he is doing."

It is far from the picture Trumpworld had repeatedly painted of Biden, who the president has said belongs in a nursing home, is unable to speak without a teleprompter and would fail a cognition test used to diagnose dementia. But despite late efforts to recast Biden as a champion debater, Trump and his campaign have set the bar exceptionally low for him in the minds of many voters, veterans of presidential debate preparation said.

"The only way Trump triumphs is if it's a disaster for Biden, and by that I mean a moment, or moments, in which the challenger appears incoherent or unhinged and, therefore, incapable of holding the office of president," said Mark McKinnon, who helped prepare George W. Bush for his debates and Sarah Palin for her vice presidential debate against Biden in 2008.

Trump aides acknowledged over the summer that attacks on Biden's acumen ran the risk of setting the bar too low for Biden come debate time, but the president persisted as the strategy became intertwined with another of his primary messages: that Biden had become a tool of the far-left wing of the Democratic Party because of a deterioration in his mental state.

Some Trump surrogates tried to raise expectations for Biden's debate performance, but their message was muddled and contradicted by the president, who has continued to claim with no evidence that Biden is unable to speak without help from his aides and is taking performance-enhancing drugs.

"I have no idea how he's going to be. He's always different when he comes out, 'cause he's on a different medication, I guess. But he's always very different when he comes out," Trump told reporters Saturday.

Little over the past year has done much to alter the dynamics of the race, but debates have traditionally been viewed as moments that can shift momentum. Even if Trump were able to pick up ground only at the margins, that could be enough in several key battleground states where he is within only a few points of Biden, like Florida and North Carolina.

The first debate is typically the most watched — 84 million viewers tuned in to the first general election faceoff in 2016.

Trump has largely avoided traditional debate prep with a mock opponent and moderator, opting instead to have less formal conversations about Biden's record on issues like crime and about broad strategy with policy advisers, like national security adviser Robert O'Brien and economic adviser Larry Kudlow. He has also been having regular discussions with campaign manager Bill Stepien and communications adviser Jason Miller, one of the few people left in Trump's orbit from his 2016 race.

Trump has said he sees his day job as a preparation for the debate, for example by taking questions from reporters and doing media interviews. But a news conference where Trump commands the stage is much different from when he is sharing the stage with an opponent and a moderator who runs the show, debate veterans said. Both Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012 struggled in their first debates.

"After you've been president for a while, you're not used to being questioned, and you think you know everything," said McKinnon, who said that was the case in Bush's first matchup with 2004 opponent John Kerry.

While Obama and Bush were able to recover from their first debate flops, the voting dynamic this year is different, with more than 70 million ballots having already been sent out to voters in 39 states. By the time Trump and Biden face off again, early in-person voting will have begun in California, Georgia, Iowa and Maine.

Trump's allies have tried to turn his lack of formal debate preparation to their advantage, hoping to lower expectations and suggesting that he may underperform not because he's less qualified but because he didn't spend enough time preparing.

Trump said his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were at the White House to help him prepare for the debate, both playing the role of Biden.

Pressed about how much time he was spending on debate prep, Trump said, "A little time, not a lot."

"I am running a country, you know. I don't have the luxury," the president told reporters Sunday shortly after returning from a trip to his Virginia golf course.

One of the best things Trump could do, said Philippe Reines, a senior Clinton adviser from 2016 who played Trump in mock debates with Clinton, is to be more of the debater he was that year — someone who spent little time defending himself and had a simple, clear line of attack and a focused message about jobs and immigration.

But as Biden's relatively steady poll lead attests, Trump has struggled to develop an effective line of attack this time around, and he tends to get bogged down more in his own grievances and in defending himself compared to 2016, Reines said.

If he were advising Trump this time around, Reines said, he'd advise him this way: "I'm not going to tell you to apologize. I'm not going to tell you that you have to give an inch on anything. I'm going to tell you to be consistent. You won last time because of the pillars you laid out, and you're so obsessed with declaring victory you don't leave yourself any room."